Avoid hyperbole, oversimplification when climate and security meet

By Geoffrey D. Dabelko | August 24, 2009

The impact of climate change on national security has finally moved above the fold. And as the December Copenhagen climate change negotiations approach, politicians and experts alike are being forced to examine the complex effects of natural and social change on security. They must also walk a linguistic tightrope between hyperbole and uncertainty, working to present the facts without exaggerating their meaning. So how do they maintain balance while climate security arguments are touted as a way to compel a tough climate agreement in Copenhagen? The short answer: It won’t be easy.

The long answer is more complex. It’s been 15 years since Washington witnessed its last frenzy over the links between environmental change and conflict. But during environmental security’s mid-1990s heyday, climate change often was dismissed as a long-term–and therefore low-priority–security issue. It took a back seat to more pressing concerns such as population growth, environmental degradation, and violent conflict, evident in the headline-dominating crises in Haiti, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. Similar to today’s challenge, the debates surrounding these conflicts ultimately fell short of their potential because the rhetoric got ahead of the research and oversimplified the threat posed by environmental stresses.

Today, there is a new opportunity to use increased public attention to highlight the relationship between natural resources, climate, and security, as well as to build momentum for mitigation and adaptation without fueling false fears. But redressing the climate-security link requires avoiding some of the pitfalls that impeded progress the last time climate and security shared the spotlight. Four specific lessons are worth special attention:

(1) Don’t oversell the link between climate change and violent conflict or terrorism. Climate change is expected to exacerbate conditions that can contribute to intra-state conflict, serving as a so-called “threat multiplier.” But characterizing climate change as producing a new type of conflict is both wrong and counterproductive. For example, simply labeling the genocide in Darfur a “climate war” ignores political and economic motivations for the fighting–and unintentionally could let the criminal regime in Khartoum off the hook. To fully understand how the conflict between Sudanese pastoralists and agriculturalists reached the present extreme, we must examine the interplay between environmental issues such as desertification, drought, and declining agricultural productivity that will be made worse by climate change. But the roles of climate and limited natural resources shouldn’t eclipse the political relationships, power struggles, and ethnic grievances contributing to the conflict. Instead, the roles must be integrated into those wider political considerations.

Similarly, there are concerns that climate change could induce state failure, a political environment that can provide a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents. Oversimplifying this complex but real link, however, could ultimately backfire–lending credence to accusations that climate security is deterministic and therefore, can’t be influenced by external factors.

(2) Don’t forget ongoing natural resource and conflict problems. The research and policy docket already is crowded with serious conflicts (as well as opportunities for cooperation) over resources, whether they are minerals, water, timber, fish, or land. While climate change certainly poses a large–and potentially catastrophic–threat in many settings, we must not overlook the ongoing problems of rapid population growth, persistent poverty, lack of clean water and sanitation, and infectious diseases that already threaten lives daily. Climate change will likely multiply these threats, but they will continue to exact a high toll even if the climate stabilizes. Presenting climate change as the number one concern and demoting other deadly threats is insensitive to the pressing problems faced by many people in poor and developing countries.

(3) Don’t assume climate change will drive massive migration. Climate change is likely to push people to move–probably lots of them. But the notion of “climate migration” is increasingly framed with too much certainty. The motivation for any group to move is always a combination of push and pull factors; climate can be one of those factors. Counting the number of coastal residents vulnerable to sea-level rise, for example, can give a sense of scale, but generating a precise figure for global “climate migrants” is impossible. Many reports suggest that tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people will move north from the global South, while much of the research on climate-induced migration actually suggests that most movement will be South-to-South and within countries.

In debates on climate migration, climate migrants often are flagged as likely instigators of conflict in receiving countries. On the border between India and Bangladesh, where migration to India has spurred conflict for decades, increased arrivals from Bangladesh may, in fact, contribute to further violence. Yet, in this case, it’s important to note that migration is mostly expected to follow previous patterns in which rural-to-urban flows have had positive and negative legacies. Any other explanation is an oversimplification of how political violence manifests itself.

(4) Don’t forget that climate mitigation efforts can introduce social conflict. Since confronting climate change can have unanticipated consequences, mitigation efforts must be “conflict-proofed” to avoid unwittingly creating new inequities and instigating new conflict. For example, demand for biofuels has increased the use of U.S. agricultural land for “growing energy.” But it has also helped spur rising food prices and, subsequently, riots in Mexico. On the other side of the world, accelerated deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil plantations has fueled social conflict over forest resources by exacerbating existing tensions between companies and local people.

Proposed climate mitigation efforts raise many questions: Will skyrocketing demand for lithium in car batteries lead to conflict in Bolivia, where approximately 50 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves are found? Are we prepared to tolerate the large-scale dislocation and social conflict associated with more large hydropower projects? What about potential battles over the funds generated by the U.N. Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, also known as REDD? The types of conflict generated in these scenarios may be more diffuse and less intentionally violent. Nonetheless, such potentially negative consequences haven’t been seriously addressed in most climate mitigation policy discussions.

These are just four of the challenges international policy makers and politicians face as the security implications of climate change garner increased attention. As they navigate these dangerous waters, they should seek approaches that allow all boats to float as the seas rise. To do so, they must broaden the concepts of mitigation, adaptation, and security to include less glamorous solutions (like fuel-efficient stoves) and address too-often tolerated problems.

Closer to home, as U.S. policy makers reshape foreign assistance, they must overcome their preference for stovepipes and embrace the complex realities of an interdependent world. Progress requires new partnerships and breaking down traditional barriers between the environment, health, development, conflict prevention, and security communities. “Interpreters” must help these communities understand each other, but even more importantly, we need to avoid hyperbole and oversimplification. Now is the time to learn from and share with a necessarily diverse set of partners in the global fight against climate change, poverty, and insecurity.

Together, we make the world safer.

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